Friday, December 6, 2013

Two (Very Different) Poems

            As a poet, I consider it my god-given duty to bemoan how little Americans understand poetry.  So here:  "Bemoan!"  Next week, thoughts on Plato's Apology.  This week, I thought I'd post a couple of poems.
            Neither of the poems below is what I would call the finest of the respective poets — namely, Mary Oliver and Maya Angelou.  Nor are Oliver and Angelou my favorite poets.  They are, instead, poems that were very important for my development as a writer.
            The writer who first made me want to be a poet was William Shakespeare.  I say this not so much as a "Hey, aren't I classy?" but more to demonstrate just how out of step I was with contemporary writing and thought and...well, existence.  I read almost the complete works of Shakespeare sometime between the ages of 11 and 14, and understood little to none of it.  I just knew that every once in awhile I would stumble across a turn of phrase that sent my head spinning with its convoluted-yet-crystal-clear beauty.  Also, I knew that the main characters were largely sociopathic, fascinating, disturbed men, and I was already pretty clear on the fact that this was totally my type.
            Then, one day, for reasons I don't recall, I was at a bookstore and thought to myself, "Well, if I'm a poet, I should read some poetry."  I went over to the poetry section and chose one book — Maya Angelou's Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie — almost entirely because I recognized her name, though how I don't know.  The other was West Wind, by Mary Oliver, and I have absolutely no idea why I picked that one up.  I'd never heard of Oliver, and the phrase "Winner of the Pulitzer Prize" printed on the front meant nothing to a kid as sheltered as I was.
            The two poems below are the first poems in each book.  They are the first poems that I read by these poets, and they may very well qualify as the first 20th century poetry I ever read.  (Sidenote:  I was eighteen or nineteen at the time.)  I'm putting them here because...well, because for many different reasons, poetry has a reputation for being difficult.  And it can be.  And while I may enjoy slogging through difficult poetry, I certainly don't enjoy difficult literary theory or scientific research papers, so I sympathize with people who think poetry is somehow "beyond them."  But it's not.  It's just not.  Poets like Oliver seem pretty intent on proving that.

Seven White Butterflies
by Mary Oliver

                                    Seven white butterflies
                                    delicate in a hurry look
                                    how they bang the pages
                                          of their wings as they fly

                                    to the fields of mustard yellow
                                    and orange and plain
                                    gold all eternity
                                          is in the moment this is what

                                    Blake said Whitman said such
                                    wisdom in the agitated
                                    motions of the mind seven
                                          dancers floating

                                    even as worms toward
                                    paradise see how they banter
                                    and riot and rise
                                          to the trees flutter

                                    lob their white bodies into
                                    the invisible wind weightless
                                    lacy willing
                                          to deliver themselves unto

                                    the universe now each settles
                                    down on a yellow thumb on a 
                                    brassy stem now
                                          all seven are rapidly sipping

                                    from the golden towers who
                                    would have thought it could be so easy?

            The poem was something of an epiphany to me.  The sensuality took my breath away, and while I understood the references to Blake and Whitman, the poem changed them for me.  Before, poets like Blake and Whitman were part of a different world, a world that seemed both better than this world, and ferociously unavailable to full comprehension.  Oliver, in twenty-six lines, wrote a gorgeous poem that had as its stars seven insects — no lovers, no sailors, no fairies or mermaids or goddesses or other-male-fantasies — while she effortlessly tugged Blake and Whitman into supporting roles.  I had had absolutely no idea that poetry could be beautiful, and comprehensible.
            Angelou is, of course, an entirely different writer.  I'm not sure if she is more famous as a poet, or as an autobiographer, but either way she is one of our Black Classic writers.  Angelou has very much played a role as a spokesperson for African Americans, and in particular black women.  And while I knew Angelou was black — while her race and the radical difference between our life experiences was, it felt, written in blood in her books — I appreciated the violent shock I got from reading her poetry.

They Went Home
by Maya Angelou

                                         They went home and told their wives,
                                               that never once in all their lives,
                                               had they known a girl like me,
                                         But . . . They went home.

                                         They said my house was licking clean,
                                               no word I spoke was ever mean,
                                               I had an air of mystery,
                                         But . . . They went home.

                                         My praises were on all men's lips,
                                               they like my smile, my wit, my hips,
                                               they'd spend one night, or two or three.
                                         But . . .

            In retrospect it feels almost charmingly naïve, the way I took Angelou's poetry in.  I had read nothing like it before, and I was repeatedly flabbergasted at how frankly she wrote about sex and racism and violence and drugs and the beauty of black people's bodies.  But it registered as something like, "Wow!  I had no idea you could do that.  Huh.  I guess you can do that."

            As a final note, I, like every other vaguely-guilt-ridden upper class white person in the world, feel uncomfortable talking about, oh, what shall we call it?  Blackness?  Race?  Not-me-ness?  I'm not sure.  I feel uncomfortable drawing attention to a writer's race, because it is "rude" to do so.  It has only recently dawned on me, however, that this is due to the fact that I am white and, therefore, the somehow "neutral" race.  It's like, I'm normal, and it's rude of me to call attention to a black person's lack of normalcy.  I haven't found what feels like an organic, graceful way to address my own privilege and racism, but until I do I'm just going to start hammering at it, probably, ungracefully.

1 comment:

  1. I know what you mean about Shakespeare. I would probably love Shakespeare even if I didn't speak English, just for the sound of it.

    I love the poems you've posted. It's funny how difficult it is to find the Good Stuff in the poetry of our own time. Almost like you need a tour guide to show you where to look, some native speaker of modern poetry. This is a good step in that direction.

    On the race thing, I hear you loud and clear, especially as a MALE white American straight person. I'm walking privilege. But I've had the interesting experience of being a minority, something I think every white person in a white-majority country should have. And the way I hammer away at the presumption of white normality is to make fun of white people.

    I think Richard Pryor was the first person to do this effectively in public. It hadn't occurred to anyone that Ozzie and Harriet whiteness was anything but normal, and then Pryor show us that white folks were not just distinctive, but they were kind of weird.

    My own satire is attached to everyday mundane events, things people will often attach to race even when it's not a rational factor. For example, if I see a white person driving badly, I boldly and irrationally attach this flaw to their whiteness. I don't know how effective it is, but I think every little subversion counts.